A question I see regularly on Photography forums and groups on Facebook is “Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG?”. 

This is also a question I asked myself before I got into photography, so I thought it would be appropriate to write a blog post expressing my opinion on the topic.

When I first started learning to use a DSLR, I left the file settings as default, so all my photos were saved to the card as a JPEG. For a long time, I always assumed I was doing something wrong because I couldn’t get my photos anything like that of professional photographers I followed online. My photos were always either overexposed or underexposed in certain areas.

If I took a photo of a sunset, the ground was black. If I took a photo with high sun, the sky was white. I did find ways around this, such as taking multiple photos and merging them in post production and also getting a better understanding of shutter speeds and taking my camera off Auto settings.

So what was my solution? Simple, switch my camera to shoot in RAW.

To explain simply, when you shoot in RAW, your camera is storing uncompressed, unprocessed (minimally processed), data from the sensor. This means that you are able to decide in post production, what processing you would like done on the photo. These RAW files are able to bring back unbelievable detail in your shadows and highlights, and also change the exposure of your photo. This detail is just not possible to restore if your camera compresses the file as a JPEG.

So what’s the catch?

As with anything, there are drawbacks when shooting in raw.

For starters, file sizes are massive. On average, a JPEG saved from my Canon 600D is roughly 6MB. Whereas a RAW image from the same camera is usually 22MB. That’s over three times the size, meaning I can only store one-third a number of photos on the card.

Secondly, RAW file formats (such as DNG, CR2 or TIF) often cannot be opened by an operating systems default photo preview, and can’t be uploaded to most image hosting websites, because it is not technically an image. It is uncompressed data, that can be used to create an image. RAW files should be opened in a photo editing program such as Photoshop or Lightroom and rendered as an image before being uploaded or printed.

The biggest issue here is, if you take a lot of photos, for example, 100, you have to manually preview each of these in your photo editing program before filtering out your favourites. This can be very time consuming and exhausting.

What’s the solution?

There is one solution that a lot of cameras offer, to save 2 versions of your photo to the card. A RAW and a JPEG.

Most modern DSLR’s and Drones offer this feature, which is great if you would like to quickly upload or print a few photos as you took them without editing them as RAW, but you also have the ability to improve the photo if you desire.

This does mean you are reducing the number of photos you can take, as you are now storing over four times the original file size, and you will also be limited in how quickly you can take photos, but it is the price you pay for freedom of choice in post production.

I personally only shoot in RAW. I have developed a process for reviewing and editing my RAW files over time that removes the need for keeping JPEG files.

How do I edit RAW photos?

Editing RAW photos is simple enough to do, if you have the tools to do so. I use Adobe Photoshop myself, but I have also used Adobe Lightroom in the past for bulk editing. Most professional photo editing software will support RAW editing. Click here for a short list of some non-photoshop photo editing programs.

When you open a RAW file in photoshop, a popup window is shown, with a list of your photos, a preview of your photo and a toolbar with your main settings.

When I edit a photo, I have a few changes I automatically make, by default:

  • Increase clarity
  • Increase vibrance
  • Reduce/increase exposure
  • Reduce highlights (for sky photos)
  • Increase shadows
  • Reduce Blacks

Obviously, these settings vary from photo to photo, but as you can see from the image above, I end up with a much better photo. A more even exposure, vibrant colours and better contrast. And this is just with the simple RAW adjustments listed above, after this step I’m free to make any other adjustments to better the photo.

RAW is also good for editing photos of stars, as you can reduce some noise and control how much light the stars produce. I’ve found several times that RAW picks up stars that weren’t even visible to my eyes.